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Himachal cherry growers anxious of lockdown impact

April 19, 2020 07:28 PM

SHIMLA:It's cherry season in Himachal Pradesh. The Shimla district that alone accounts for over 90 per cent of the state's cherry output is set to reap a bountiful crop.

The State Horticulture Department is expecting 452 tonnes crop this year, slightly less from the last year's all-time high of 550 tonnes.

Farmers are, however, skeptical about supply to its main market, which is north Indian plains, due to shortage of packaging material and curbs on inter-state transportation of goods.

"The cherry crop this time is set to be above normal. But the main hurdle, we foresee, is to shift the crop from the orchard to the Azadpur mandi in Delhi, the marketing hub of the region, " Dev Manta, a grower from Kotkhai in the Shimla district, told IANS over phone.

According to him, the cherry trees in the region have healthy fruit setting and it will start ripening by the end of April or the first week of May, depending upon the altitude of the orchard. "Right now, we are keeping our fingers crossed, " Manta said.

Bhagat Singh, head of the Halyana Cooperative Society, a Kotgarh-based society with membership of 500 stone-fruit growers, expressed apprehensions on its marketing. The farmers were facing huge shortage of corrugated packing boxes, he said.

"Since the cherries can't be transported from orchards without packing them in boxes, we need them immediately. Otherwise, it will not be a fruitful exercise to harvest cherries, despite shortage of labourers, and then allow them to rot, " he said.

The coronavirus pandemic had kept local carton traders largely locked in their homes for over a month, causing shortage of cartons in the market. Local traders depend on the corrugated box units outside the state. It's not easy for them to procure boxes without the government intervention.

Every year a month ahead of the stone-fruit harvesting, which is months ahead of harvesting of apple, the state's main fruit crop, they would place orders with the manufacturing units.

This season the traders couldn't do so also because the corrugated producing units are shut since March 24.

Rakesh Singha, CPI-(M) legislator from Theog, last week met Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur and urged him to procure the entire cherry produce directly from growers to protect them from losses amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"We have apprised the Chief Minister about shortage of packaging boxes and problems of transporting cherry to markets due to lockdown till May 3, " Singha, himself a prominent fruit grower, told IANS.

He also sought a minimum support price of Rs 50 per kg for cherries.

"The government should make arrangements for transportation of the procured cherries to markets. Or the government can make jams and jellies at its HPMC plants from stone-fruits, like plums, cherries and peaches, " Singha said.

The higher reaches of Shimla, Kullu, Mandi, Chamba and Kinnaur, at 6, 000-8, 000 feet altitudes above sea level, are ideal for stone-fruit cultivation. Nearly 20, 000 marginal farmers are involved in cherry cultivation and grow over 20 varieties on over 500 hectares.

Trade representatives said state's imported cherry varieties, like deuro nera, stella, merchant and celsius, which have a longer shelf life, are always in great demand.

The hub of cherry cultivation is Narkanda, Kotgarh, Baagi, Matiana, Kumarsain and Thanedhar in the Shimla district. The cultivation of cherries has emerged as an alternative in the apple-growing areas of the state and is fetching fairly high prices compared with other fruits.

Gopal Mehta, known for his organic fruits in the Shimla district, said last year the prices were abnormally low owing to cherry glut.

But this time slightly higher than the normal yield can turn the cherry business juicy with the growers getting remunerative prices. "Ordinary red cherries can fetch around Rs 100 a kg in Delhi's Azadpur wholesale fruit market, while the top quality cherries can get up to Rs 300 a kg, " Mehta said.

He said by next week of May the harvesting of the best varieties, like black heart, bing and deuro nera, would pick up. "By that time the national lockdown will be partially lifted, " Mehta hoped.

The Himachal Pradesh's economy is highly dependent on horticulture, apart from hydroelectric power and tourism, with the annual fruit industry worth over Rs 3, 500 crore.

According to the Horticulture Department estimates, lack of cold chains causes decay of 25 per cent of the produce.

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